Starting this academic year, the Humanities and Social Sciences (HS) department of IIT Madras is starting integrated 5-year MA courses in Economics, English and Developmental Studies. With this IITM becomes the second IIT to start undergrad courses in Economics after IIT Kanpur which started an integrated MSc in Economics last year. This particular move of IITM is commendable mainly for two reasons – one to provide meaningful employment to HS profs and also in a branding context.

The Humanities department was started in order to provide BTech students a more holistic view of life. It has a reasonably large number of faculty (at least more than the Computer Science department) whose only teaching responsibility is to handle a few electives for BTech students.

Motivating Profs

Now, the attitude of BTech students towards HS courses can hardly be described as encouraging. Most people consider them to be necessary evils, “utterly global stuff”, “fart stuff”, 12 credits of which have to be done in order to get that BTech degree. Involvement in class is abysmal, and the lesser that is said about term papers, the better (of course there are notable exceptions like me who wished there were more HS courses than having so many workshops and drawing classes!).

The atmosphere in a HS class full of BTech students can be a major put-off for the profs. This is probably why the HS department in IIT is having trouble in attracting and retaining good faculty. Most profs (irrespective of their deparment) say that the greatest joy comes out of teaching undergrads. And with the kind of involvement undergrads show in HS courses, one cannot really fault them if they are disillusioned.

This is where the MA program fits in. In one shot, it provides the HS profs a whole bunch of highly motivated and interested undergrads. This is of course assuming that the general brand value of IIT and the lack of good undergrad schools for BA help in attracting the best talent for this course. Now, teaching these MA students will be a totally different experience from teaching uninterested BTechs. In that respect, one can expect more good people to join the HS department in IITM. Another side-effect of the MA program is that if MA and BTech electives can be combined, it would probably force the BTechs to put in more effort towards their HS courses, thus raising the general levels of the class.

Moving beyond engineering

The MA program is also the first step for the IITs from moving from world-class undergrad engineering colleges to world-class undergrad colleges. The reason so few people in India are taking up the arts is because of the lack of quality undergrad colleges in the same (especially in the south). And there are no better institutions than the IITs when it comes to undergrad courses. One only hopes that the standard of the course is maintained, else it could turn out into a meaningless exercise.

Another thing an MA program in humanities offers is more electives. Currently, if I’m an engineering undergrad who wants to do more HS courses, there aren’t too many to choose from. So you end up choosing courses in math and physics which you’re never going to use anyways. An MA in HS means that if i’m interested in HS, I would be able to take all my “free electives” in that department without compromising too much on course content, quality, etc.

Taking it forward

Assuming other IITs will soon follow, they should not stop at just offering plain vanilla MA courses in various disciplines. Note that there are not too many colleges which offer both engineering and humanities undergrads on the same campus. The humanities department should strive for greater integration with the rest of IIT and inter-departmental work should be encouraged. Efforts could also be made to offer undergrad and masters programs which span across the HS department and an engineering department. For example, Electrical, Civil and Humanities can come together to offer a masters in Infrastructure.

The IITs should also try something like a BTech in economics. This would be fairly different from the economics programs offered by other universities. It is more like “economics for engineers”. There are quite a few concepts in economics which can be taught better if the students are all mathematically inclined. Entry to this could probably be through the JEE to ensure only the quantitatively inclined people take it. It is something which has probably never been done before. And it does no harm to try it.

To end on a lighter note, one definite plus point of the MA program is that it will improve drastically the sex ratio at IIT. Currently it stands at around 16. 16 boys for every girl. Considering the enthu for humanities among boys and girls, even a pessimistic view would suggest that the sex ratio would be cut down by half! However, it means bad news for the BTech girls. A lower sex ratio means lower number of guys hitting on each girl which consequently means more dinners in the mess! After all, there needs to be someone who loses out because of reform!

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